From its origin in magazines, hard-boiled crime fiction has grown from its western inspired heroes to organized-crime fighting men in urban communities. These detectives have recently expanded across new cultures as well, depicting modern day hard-boiled detectives who are no longer always white, straight males, but rather people of different races, genders, and sexualities. The new representation of culture in the description of the hard-boiled detective brings along new qualities; not only have the identities of these protagonists changed, but so too have their inner thoughts and beliefs. In his short story “Smoke,” Walter Mosley rewrites the hard-boiled detective by using a private eye who is immersed in and protective of his culture, a man who harbors mistrust in an area that is new for the genre: white people. Mosley illuminates the fact that the hard-boiled type is based on white privilege and, if set in urban black communities, would need to be drastically rewritten, as he does with his character, Easy. By uncovering the motivations, morals, loyalties, definitions of masculinity, and areas of mistrust that define Easy, the disparities between the original, white detective and the more modern man like Easy are made clear and, though some similarities may exist, Easy ultimately does not fit into the hard-boiled mold.
From 1916-1970, millions of African Americans relocated to the North and West to escape unfair economic opportunities and cruel segregation laws, a trend now referred to as The Great Migration. Though the North and West were supposed to be a kind of refuge, those who traveled were met with terrible working conditions, crowding living spaces, and a persistent prejudice. Walter Mosley’s “Smoke” takes place in 1964. Though this is the tail end of the era, the reader is still able to see the effect of the era as well as the after-effects on the characters and plot.
“Smoke” describes Easy as a janitor for the local all-black school as well as an on-the-side private eye. The school is attacked, and Easy makes it his mission to find out what happened and why, though he is not a paid private detective. Easy goes after the truth relentlessly, going under cover, reaching out to community members, and even resorting to violence when he sees no way to avoid it. At the end, his persistence bears fruit, and Easy solves the mystery. Of Walter Mosley’s 50 something books and 30+ short stories, his Six Easy Pieces series, which includes “Smoke,” is perhaps his most well-known. Despite this, this particular short story has very little commentary written about it. Plenty of sources have described and analyzed Easy as a character, but the story itself is not commonly reviewed.
The hard-boiled genre of crime fiction did not always exist, nor did it always appear in the same fashion. It came into existence in America during the 1920s and 30s and was originally available in pulp magazines, named after the cheap, rough paper on which they were printed. These magazines were targeted to working class men and thus contained material that represented and responded to the world this audience lived in (Worthington 122). This type of crime fiction is “often graphic and frequently sadomasochistic and misogynistic … [crime has an] omnipresence in society” (122). According to Heather Worthington in Key Concepts in Crime Fiction, the goal of these magazines was to “promote ideal justice to its readers and so possibly even contribute to the control of criminality” (122), and thus they contained westerns and adventure stories, in addition to crime fiction, in an effort to provide stories with endings in which the criminals or sources of evil were defeated. Soon, it was apparent that links had been established between the genres, specifically between westerns and hard-boiled crime fiction: “the private detective came to epitomize the traditional American hero previously represented by the frontiersman/cowboy” (122). The traits in common included strong senses of morality and justice tailored to a very tough, individualistic man, as well as corrupt and violent settings.
The term hard-boiled “denot[es] toughness and durability,” defining one who is described with the term as “hardened, callous, hard-headed [and] shrewd” (Worthington 121). The detectives who are coined as hard-boiled truly fit this description. They are tough in terms of physique as well as hardened emotionally to the world of crime. Often, they are “bound by a rigid, if very individual, moral code” and “alienated from the community … [he] essentially works to satisfy himself” according to these personal morals and sense of justice (Worthington 122-123). This individual code and alienation comes into play in terms of trust. In his book Crime Fiction, John Scaggs states that “the hostility that the private eye typically displays [is only] for the forces of law and order … [he] answers to nobody but himself” (60). Additionally, these detectives “exist outside of or beyond the socio economic order of family, friends, work, and home … [there is] no commitment, personal or social, beyond the accomplishment of his job” (Scaggs 59). In terms of masculinity, the detective has some paradoxical qualities. For instance, he is both sensitive as well as tough. Additionally, though he does resort to physical violence and coercion, he is intelligent, and makes decisions concerning violence with rationale (Scaggs 61). The environment in which they operate is also essential to understanding. Typically, urban settings, like cities, are the hangouts for these investigators because of the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth; cities also hold criminals seeking to avoid the police because they can hide amongst the crowds (Worthington 123). Additionally, the city provided “organized crime, in particular the violent and systematic takeover of bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling that depended on the sort of capital investment that went hand in glove with the political and police corruption” (Scaggs 57). This city environment also contributes to the dialogue in these novels. It is fast paced with jargon in an attempt to reflect the language spoken on the streets of the city (56).
Walter Mosely’s “Smoke” stars a protagonist who lives during a period of inequality in Los Angeles; this urban setting adheres to a normal location for a hard-boiled detective. The genre in which this character stars is intentional because of the relevancy of ethnic inequality concerning crime and the work force: “Mosley uses crime fiction as the ideal form in which to expose and narrate the still lived in experience of what his detective Easy Rawlins terms being ‘criminal by color’” (English). The setting in the story depicts a clear distrust of white people, and the majority of the characters are African Americans who understand that the system is unfair to non-white people. Easy even comments on the balance of ethnicities in his society, reflecting on “the children [who] came to [him] with their problems” out of fear or confusion “because bill collectors, policemen, and angry store owners were the only white people in their daily lives” (Mosley 12). However, this distrust is not limited to children. Easy, too, expresses this sentiment almost daily. Sergeant Andre Brown and Easy are friends, and they respect each other as equals. This is unusual for a hard-boiled detective, but it soon becomes clear that Easy lacks communication and trust with another social group: white people. The sergeant is characterized by Easy as “the highest ranking black policeman” (32). While crediting the sergeant for his high position, this description makes it clear that Easy does not trust white police officers, and that he would never give any information to one. Still, he gains the trust of the police and “he astutely uses and plays off of his knowledge of others’ perspectives of his racial difference, gaining access to the many public and private spaces he must enter in the course of his detective work” (Brooks 18). The suspicion of white people in this story corresponds with the timeline of the Great Migration period and demonstrates that, while Easy can still fit into the detective mold, the typical mistrust of the police has shifted to mistrust of white people.
The motivation that drives this detective to solve mysteries is unusual from that of a normal hard-boiled detective. Instead of money, power, or sex as driving factors, Easy possess a sense of duty and respect for his community. When the kids at his school are put in danger by a bomb, he makes it his job to find out who was responsible and why they did it, though he faces some criticism from his friends, who remind him that “‘[his] job is to make sure that the toilets don’t smell and that the trash cans is emptied. [He] not no bomb squad’” (Mosley 22). Even though these children are not his own, he recognizes the danger and disadvantages that they face and prioritizes keeping them safe. Still, he really cares for his community, and takes on the responsibility of keeping the high-schoolers safe. “The tension between Rawlins’s desire for agency and his inability to transcend the limits imposed on him by white controlled institutions and their representatives” (Young 18) is exceedingly clear in Easy’s behavior as a protector; he constantly works to protect the people of his community even though he does not have the job of a private investigator. This sense of morality is unusual for a hard-boiled detective because it is so selfless and is perhaps the biggest indicator that Easy strays from the norm.
The man available at all hours of the night, answering to no one and letting no one down, is not to be found in this book. Instead, “[a] more realistic hero,” a family man full of love for his kids, wife, and job takes over the position. Though he is focused on sniffing out the bad guys, he consistently makes time to go “home to make sure Feather and Jesus were okay” (Mosley 34). The effort he puts forth to watch over them is far beyond simply checking to make sure they are at home. Easy is dedicated to giving them a good life, making sure to “set [Feather] up at the dinette table to get to work on her studies” when he gets home and work out a deal with Jesus, who had no interest in public school (29). The deal is that “[Jesus] read out loud to [Easy] for forty-five minutes, and then discuss what he had read for three quarters of an hour more” (4). Though Easy wishes he could “light a fire under him” to make him like school, he has accepted that “he was smart about the things he cared for” and let him thrive in the best way that he could (4). This dedication to his children is certainly atypical for a private detective, both because they tend to live alone and because they generally are only committed to themselves to the same extent. Easy shows the same kind of care for his community, “protect[ing] his people when he can … [while still] very aware of the danger of the life on the cultural borders” (Davis 11). Easy essentially works two jobs to ensure this safety, which demonstrates how important his community is to him. So, though Easy participates in some questionable behavior as a father, he remains loyal and devoted to his family, wife, and community, which sets him apart from the typical independent hard-boiled man.
According to Hussman in his book African American Review, hard-boiled narrative is said to have a “code of machismo” which was contributed to by Teddy Roosevelt. He apparently went against the “effeminacy of his day” which consisted of “softer type, characterized not so much by strength as by the perceived virtues of empathy, sensitivity, and domestication” and “thereby helped enshrine masculinity”. Because of Roosevelt’s impact, the softer man evolved to possess more diverse traits, and thus, at its inception, the detective displayed both masculine and feminine elements instead of focusing on just one of these. Easy Rawlins can be considered to fit this description; he has an immense love for family, cooking, and his house, demonstrating a more domesticated side that is abnormal for a hard-boiled detective. Typically, these men eat out, are unmarried, do not have children, and live secluded in a city building. Though Easy lives in LA, a rather large city, his home setting is quite different. In fact, Easy draws some of his masculinity from “his claim to a position as a ‘man of property’” (Horsley 222). This masculine pride in property owning stems from both the struggles of a non-white male in an urban society as well as Easy’s appreciation for his steady home life. Thus, Easy’s atypical ethnicity and more feminine side are highlighted. Additionally, Easy has episodes of violence or rage when he is investigating, and the physical aggression that he displays can be considered more masculine. These traits and behaviors adhere to the idea about the combination of what is considered masculine or feminine traits presented by the evolved detective, and indicate that Easy does display both sides.
The hard-boiled detective has undergone several changes since its inception, and one of the most significant examples of its transformation is Walter Mosley’s series Six Easy Pieces. Comparing these stories, such as “Smoke,” with the original hard-boiled man brings forth notable changes in morals, masculinity, motivation, and areas of mistrust. It becomes clear that time is not the only reason behind the change; in fact, the difference in ethnicity contributes much stronger factors, such as masculinity and morals. Mosley, in fact, “interrogates whiteness” (Horsley 219), noting without subtlety the disparities in the Los Angeles society that Easy operates in, the disadvantages he faces, and how his culture shapes his personality. The story “seek[s] to disentangle justice and morality from white hegemony, fighting exploitation and violence within black communities while also attacking a social system that engenders crime” and does so through its recreation of the hard-boiled detective (Crooks 74). Walter Mosley breaks boundaries previously set for this genre’s detective and blazes a trail for future hard-boiled private detectives, using Easy’s deviations in race, priorities, and mistrusts as an example.
Brooks, George English. “Private Eyes and ‘Little Helpers’: Doormen, Gatekeepers, and Racial
Trespass in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 47, 2012, pp. 17–33,
Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester
Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 68–90,
Davis, J. Madison. “Living Black, Living White: Cultural Choices in Crime Films.” World
Literature Today, vol. 82, no. 3, 2008, pp. 9–11,
English, Daylanne K. “The Modern in the Postmodern: Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, and the
Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction.” American Literary History, vol. 18, no. 4, 2006, pp. 772–96,
Gardner, John. “Immigration and Wages: New Evidence from the African American
Great Migration.” IZA Journal of Migration, vol. 5, no. , 28 NOV. 2016, pp. 1-45. EBSCOhost,
Horsley, Lee. “Black Appropriations.” Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, Oxford UP,
2009, pp. 196-241.
Hussman, Lawrence E. “African American Review.” African American Review, vol. 43, no. 1,
2009, pp. 211–213,
Scaggs, John. “The Hard-Boiled Mode.” Crime Fiction, Routledge, 2010.
Worthington, Heather. Key Concepts in Crime Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Young, Mary. “Walter Mosley, Detective Fiction and Black Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, Summer98, pp. 141-150. EBSCOhost, libproxy.nau.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=1352099&login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site.